Article for the University of South Carolina Archives Newsletter, Summer 2004
By Michael Pettersen
Freddie Green was the most famous big band rhythm guitarist of the 20th Century. Born in Charleston, South Carolina, on March 31, 1911, Freddie began his musical life by learning to play the banjo at age 12. As a teenager, he was sent to live with his aunt in New York City. After his school days were over, he worked as an upholsterer by day and as a jazz musician at night. Freddie's big break came in March 1937 when the Count Basie Orchestra hired him. He played with the Basie organization for fifty years! During that time, he performed worldwide, made over 1,000 recordings with the Basie band, and appeared as a sideman on over 700 recordings by other jazz artists. The jazz world nicknamed him "Mr. Rhythm". Freddie Green died suddenly on March 1, 1987 between shows at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. After his death, the Green family gave his personal papers and memorabilia to the South Caroliniana Library. I became interested in Freddie Green in 1970 when I was selected as the rhythm guitarist with the University of Illinois Jazz Band. The leader, Dr. John Garvey, was a Basie fanatic and the band played Basie charts at every concert. Dr. Garvey suggested that I study Basie recordings to learn the style of Freddie Green. Little did I realize that the research assignment would last over thirty years and would culminate in the creation of a web site that documents Freddie's life and his guitar technique.
While in college, I never did figure out how Freddie Green created that marvelous unique sound. Very little instructional material was published on the arcane art of big band rhythm guitar. The material that did exist claimed that Freddie employed standard rhythm guitar chord voicings, played on the 6th, 5th, and 3rd strings. I used these voicings but I certainly did not sound like Freddie did on the Basie records. Still curious in the late 1970's, I wrote several letters to Freddie asking to interview him about his guitar technique. My letters were never answered.
In 1998, I rekindled my rhythm guitar avocation by joining a big band based in Evanston, Illinois. The band's book was filled with Basie charts and again I faced the Freddie Green enigma. With many of the Basie records re-issued on compact disc, there were many "new" recordings available and one in particular proved crucial. The CD captured the audio portion of a 1959 television program from Geneva, Switzerland, that featured the Basie band. The Swiss TV engineer had placed a microphone very close to Freddie's guitar (he played unamplified guitar) and Freddie was very audible. So audible that I could finally ascertain what he was doing and I was stunned. He was playing "chords" where only one or two notes were sounding clearly; all the other strings were damped. Yet this highly unusual technique worked perfectly in the Count Basie setting.
For two years, I played with this technique and eventually approached the jazz magazine, Down Beat, suggesting that I write an article on my research. Down Beat was interested and in the October 2000 issue my article appeared, entitled: "Distilling Big Band Guitar: The Essence of Freddie Green". The response to the article was immediate and overwhelming. Freddie Green admirers around the world contacted me asking for more information; I did not have any, but others did. Carl Severance in Vermont, Mark Allan in Utah, and Reiner Polz in Köln, Germany, offered material and suggestions. We discussed writing a book about Freddie Green, but Carl, a web site designer by trade, suggested that a Freddie Green web site would reach more people worldwide and could be easily updated regularly with new material. And thus www.freddiegreen.org was born.
While searching the Internet for Freddie Green material, one of us discovered the Freddie Green Archive at the South Caroliniana Library. The library kindly sent an overview of the material in the archive. With the help of the library staff, I obtained photos showing Freddie playing and these provided valuable clues to his technique. A selection of these photos are posted at http://www.freddiegreen.org/photogallery/index.html, accredited to the library. Carl Severance visited the library and created a more detailed list of the contents: http://www.freddiegreen.org/papers.html
In 2003, Mark Allen and I collaborated on a Freddie Green transcription that was visual as well as aural. It proved to the be the "Rosetta Stone" of Freddie's mysterious chord voicing technique. Less than a week before Freddie's death, the Count Basie band performed an " in-studio" concert with singer Diane Schuur. The concert was video taped for release on VHS cassette and eventually DVD. The opening thirty seconds of the tune "Trav'lin' Light" is a close-up of Freddie's left hand. On DVD, this video sequence can be viewed frame by frame; it was the equivalent of a slow motion guitar lesson by Freddie Green. The transcription proved the theory put forth by Mark Allen in a paper entitled: "The Dynamic Chord and Muted Notes (DCMN) Analysis of Freddie Green's Rhythm Guitar Style: What's in a "One-Note" Chord?": http://www.freddiegreen.org/technique/allen_dcmn.html. Mark theorized that Freddie was placing his fingers on the strings to form three or four note chords, but then selectively pressing down on a subset of these strings to sound only a certain note(s )within the chord form. This allowed Freddie to make a split second decision on each beat of how thin or thick the chord texture should be in order to enhance the overall musical texture of the arrangement at that instant. By shaping the chord form, he knew that any string that he decided to press down on would sound a harmonious note. It is a brilliantly simple idea, obviously worked out a long career of playing over 200 concerts every year. (That's a lot of quarter notes, certainly over 250,000,000 in Freddie's long career.) This transcription and its analysis was published in the February 2004 issue of Down Beat magazine, closing a circle that started in the October 2000 issue of the same magazine: http://www.freddiegreen.org/technique/mp_downbeatFeb04.html.
The Freddie Green web site receives over 5,000 visitors per month and is reaching the equivalent of a two hundred page book. The contributors continue to add transcriptions, articles, book excerpts, and photos as they are created or discovered. In March 2004, a CD-ROM copy of the web site was sent to the South Caroliniana Library for inclusion in the Freddie Green Archive. It is our fervent wish that the Freddie Green web site will teach new generations about his life and his unique contribution to the art of big band rhythm guitar. Our wish is being granted based on the visitor comments received from around the world: http://www.freddiegreen.org/comments/index.html In the words on one visitor: "Long overdue recognition for a true cornerstone in American music."